Can We Still Tell if Iran Decides to Build a Nuclear Bomb?

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The U.S. and Israel may have different "redlines" for when Iran crosses the nuclear threshold.

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Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers at Tehran University. (Reuters)

The most important unanswered question about the heightened U.S.-Israel confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is whether Iran's political leadership will decide to pursue a nuclear weapon. The key judgments in the last declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program found with "high confidence" that "Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" in the fall of 2003, and this conviction remained with "moderate confidence" through mid-2007.

U.S. officials believe that only one person holds the power to decide whether or not to pursue a bomb--meaning to enrich enough uranium to bomb-grade level that can be formed into sphere that could be compressed into a critical mass--the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Testifying before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in late January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated: "Iran's technical advances, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthen our assessment that Iran is well-capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders, specifically the supreme leader himself, choose to do so."

Shortly thereafter, Clapper echoed this statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, "That is the intelligence community's assessment, that that is an option that is still held out by the Iranians. And we believe the decision would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of -- I don't think you want a nuclear weapon at any price."

One month later, James Risen reported in the New York Times: "American intelligence analysts still believe that the Iranians have not gotten the go-ahead from Ayatollah Khamenei to revive the program. 'That assessment,' said one American official, 'holds up really well.'"

On Monday, however, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak introduced a new observation that upends the previous understanding of this particular redline: "[Israel and the U.S.] both know that Khamenei did not yet ordered, actually, to give a weapon, but that he is determined to deceit and defy the whole world." When asked, "What does that mean, that the ayatollah has not given the order to build a nuclear bomb?" Barak replied:

"It's something technical. He did not tell his people start and build it--a weapon--an explodable device. We think that we understand why he does not give this order. He believes that he is penetrated through our intelligence and he strongly feels that if he tries to order, we will know it, we and you and some other intelligence services will know about it and it might end up with a physical action against it.

So he prefers to, first of all, make sure that through redundancy, through an accumulation of more lowly enriched uranium, more medium level enriched uranium and more centrifuges and more sites, better protection, that he can reach a point, which I call the zone of immunity, beyond which Israel might not be technically capable of launching a surgical operation."

If the United States accepts this logic--that the Supreme Leader would never issue the formal order to pursue a nuclear weapon for fear of foreign detection--then what was once a distinct and identifiable redline for U.S. intelligence no longer exists. In other words, any U.S. or Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program will target a latent capability that might eventually lead to a weapon protected by Barak's ill-defined zone of immunity, but not an actual nuclear weapons program.

This is a tremendous shift by Israel over how we would know if Iran decides to pursue the bomb. Before the Obama administration decides to go to war, Congress, journalists, and U.S. citizens could ask the following questions:

  1. Are violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, UN Security Council resolutions, and ongoing inadequate cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency sufficient grounds for suspecting that Iran will soon achieve nuclear weapons capability?

  2. Does the Obama administration accept Barak's new principle, contradicting Clapper's earlier assessment that the supreme leader's decision is paramount?

  3. It is unlikely that Iran would needlessly test a nuclear weapon, since it would not be required to verify that it worked. What sort of credible information will the Obama administration declassify and make public that would justify a preventive attack on Iran?

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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